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Japanese Woodblock Prints

Posted Jul 22, 2014
Written by Jessica May
Category General

Japanese Woodblock Prints produced during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries have many unique characteristics. It is easy to assume that their printing and publishing traditions were the same as European and American prints, but this is not the case.

Japanese woodblock prints are available for a huge range of prices, from affordable to very expensive. The same printed image may also be available for a wide range of prices due to value characteristics that may not be immediately obvious to an uninformed buyer. Trimmed margins or slightly faded colors (among other issues) negatively impact the value and price of a print, and can sometimes mean the difference of thousands of dollars. These prints have no edition numbers to rely upon (numbered limited edition prints were a later European convention) and often the earliest produced prints are not the most desirable or highest priced examples.

Although we refer to the prints as being by a specific artist, the artist was in fact the designer of the image. The artist’s image was then transferred and carved into the wood block and printed by other craftsman; the whole process was controlled by the publisher of the print. Limiting print editions to a certain number was not done. Publishers would often initially order a print run of about 200 and, if the print proved popular, would order more to be printed. Because of this practice, scholars have to rely upon any small differences that resulted from the separate printings to differentiate and date them.

If a print was selling particular well, and the publishers wished to invest more money, they would sometimes order deluxe impressions to be produced using higher quality inks or paper. These are almost always later printings of a previously published print, are highly sought by collectors and can cost substantially more than other examples of the same print.  From looking at an image on the Internet, two prints can appear to be the same, but in fact are not. 

There are many online and published resources that identify publishers’ marks and other identifying information on Japanese woodblock prints that can be helpful but they must be used with caution. It should also be noted that it is always useful to view these prints unframed so that margins can be examined.